|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 20, 2010 --At the Embassy Suites on International Drive, the shuttle to Universal Studios has been busier than usual.
And the buzz about Orlando's favorite new boy wizard -- Harry Potter -- has helped general manager John Parkinson push his room rates a little higher.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter appears to have delivered during its opening weeks a little of the magic Orlando-area hoteliers were hoping to see. For starters, it helped them do something last month that they hadn't been able to do in two years: raise their prices.
"We're definitely inching up on our rates," Parkinson said. "Summer looks great."
According to statistics released Monday by Smith Travel Research, operators in the nation's second-biggest hotel market filled 66.1 percent of their rooms in June, an increase of 4.2 percent from a year earlier.
Perhaps more importantly, the average daily room rate rose 2.1 percent last month -- the first year-over-year improvement for the local market June 2008.
Wizarding World has been drawing enormous crowds to Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park since unofficial previews began in late May. In a second-quarter earnings statement last week, the resort's parent company reported rising attendance and guest spending at its theme parks, even though Wizarding World didn't open officially until June 18, just 12 days before the end of the quarter.
The possibility that the new attraction persuaded travelers to pay slightly more for an Orlando hotel room is a big deal within the local hospitality industry, because experts have been noting that, while demand is coming back, discounted rates continue to be an issue.
"We're generating the demand," Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau President Gary Sain told a group of hoteliers last week. "It's the yield" that is still a challenge.
Even with the year-over-year increase, the average daily price last month -- at just more than $91 -- is not where the industry would like it to be.
"Right now, there are still deals for the consumer," said Rich Maladecki, president of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.
With Wizarding World finally open, there is talk at some hotels of sellouts or near sellouts in July, Maladecki said. And hoteliers are hoping the attraction's boost will last much longer than that, fueled by the two remaining Harry Potter movies still to come.
Some parts of the market are benefitting more than others.
Hotels on Universal property -- including the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando -- said they have seen an "absolutely overwhelming response" to the new attraction.
"Our three on-site hotels are seeing very strong occupancy levels," said Jennifer Hodges, director of public relations for Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando. "We believe it is because of the quality hotel experience, combined with the benefit of our guests receiving early park admission -- to go in one hour early and beat some of the lines for this amazing new attraction."
Not surprisingly, the "Potter effect" was most apparent last month in the International Drive area, according to Scott Smith, a lodging instructor with the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
Hotels in the I-Drive submarket, which includes Universal, filled 70.6 percent of their rooms in June, a 3.9 percent improvement from a year ago. The average room rate was up 8 percent.
"I have to believe that that's a direct effect from the opening of Harry Potter," Smith said.
The biggest percentage increase in average occupancy occurred in the East Kissimmee submarket, which is dominated by the 1,406-room Gaylord Palms Hotel & Convention Center. That hotel had expected a boost after its sister property, the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, had to close in May because of severe flooding and transfer business to other company hotels.
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5664.
Read previous stories about Harry Potter's wizarding effect on Universal Orlando:
Universal learning on the fly how to manage Harry Potter hordes
Harry Potter's early impact: Attendance rises at Universal
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